Images: Mark Clinton
Shrouded in myth, few of us have had the opportunity to go on the mystical, wild, dare I say life-changing journey of heli skiing in the Southern Alps of New Zealand.
Until this winter, I kept hearing over and over and over again how this was the best experience you can have here, but had yet to undertake it myself. To be honest, I didn’t think I would ever be able to heli ski, and I found the stories and media I was hearing and consuming around it made it seem wholly unattainable to me.
Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
If I can do it, many of you guys can too, and my experience heli skiing on Black Peak in Wanaka with Southern Lakes Heliski this winter was absolutely the best day of my life.
It broke all my expectations, was no where nearly as scary as I thought it would be, and the euphoria and joy you get out of it is almost indescribable. To give you some idea, we booked to do four runs for the day, but loved it so much I splurged and got us all a 5th run because I couldn’t bear for it to be over.
Being the total nerd that I am, I picked all my friends’ brains beforehand and still did heaps of research on what it would be like so I could prepare, but I still felt like I wanted to firmly bust all those stupid myths on here about heli skiing in the hopes that they don’t hold you back from going after this incredible adventure too.
1. It’s only for experts
I get it, I used to think I would never be good enough to go heli skiing especially when I was learning to snowboard. Isn’t that for experts only? Listen up people who think you’re not good enough to heli ski: You do not have to be pro at all.
Forget what you think you know. Heli skiing isn’t all hardcore dudes hucking off giant cliffs. It’s literally for everyone. Even kids, teenagers, parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles. Most people who go just want fresh powder and love skiing or snowboarding, many are in groups looking for an epic adventure day out with friends or celebrating a milestone.
The only requirements? You must be comfortable skiing a bit off-piste and have an all-star attitude. As long as you’re an intermediate rider and keen for powder, you’re good enough!
Trust a truly average snowboarder like me; you’ll be just fine heli skiing.
Southern Lakes Heliski here in Wanaka has 16 mountain ranges which have a variety of terrain for experts to intermediates. Having so much terrain allows them to cater to their audience and select appropriate terrain for all groups. Stop sweating about not being good enough and start giving yourself credit for what you can actually do.
You’ll usually be grouped with riders of similar abilities, skiers and snowboarders together (it doesn’t matter) and even each run has all types of lines and routes depending on your level of comfort.
2. Helisking is an Old Boys Club
It’s easy to see why one would think this.
Most of the promos and video footage I ever saw of heli skiing featured super intense dudes frothing to backflip off the mountains but guess what, rad girls heli ski too!
Heli skiing is all about having fun with friends, and for me, I was nervous and feeling pretty intimidated. To be surrounded by some of my best friends in Wanaka, all ladies who are cheering each other on and to be guiding by such a legend was a day I’ll never forget!
In fact, our group was an entirely female cast of all-star intermediate shredders led by none other than the one and only Lydia Bradey. Lydia is a local kiwi and just happened to be the first woman to climb Everest without bottled oxygen, and has set 7 first ascents in one of the climbing meccas in the world: Yosemite. She’s such a badass!
To say being surrounded by adventurous women for this trip would be an understatement. Who run the world? Girls.
3. You jump out of the helicopter Mission Impossible-style
Oddly, one of the most common misconceptions about heli skiing is thinking you jump straight out of an active helicopter, straight onto the slopes. Like with your skis on.
Stop it. This is not a movie and you are not James Bond and that’s 100% not ever going to happen.
How would you even put your gear on in the chopper? And then shimmy the door? And jump and stick the landing?
You get out of the helicopter totally normal on top of a mountain, albeit with ski gear on. Your skis ride in the basket on the side of the chopper. Once everyone is out, you crouch around the gear and hold it down as the pilot takes off.
You take off your gear well before the heli arrives and once it’s landed, your guide safely chauffers you into the cab while she/he puts the gear in the boot on the outside. Once you’re all safe in sound int the heli, you take off and repeat the process when you land. Everyone out. Unpack the gear. Duck while the heli leaves. Put on your gear in peace. Easy.
But did I mention you feel like a total badass when all the snow blows around you from the blades, knowing that you just got dumped on top of a mountain and you’re about to ride down? EPIC!
4. You need backcountry experience first
You don’t need to have backcountry experience to go heli skiing in Wanaka! Yay! You just need to be able to link turns and be an intermediate rider. I practiced heaps beforehand at my local resort, Cardrona, and went off piste between runs to get more comfortable on steeper ungroomed terrain.
Your guide will give you a thorough demonstration on how your avalanche gear works well before the helicopters arrive and briefs you on all safety aspects in advance.
They make sure you know exactly what each piece is and how to work it in case of a (highly unlikely) avalanche. Once you’re in the mountains, you guide will pick your path to keep the group safe and with so much terrain to chose from they chose safe areas and always keep an eye on the avalanche dangers and the snowpack situation.
They keep close tabs on each person and point out possible hazards before going down. Safety factor: 100.
New Zealand has a maritime snow so it compacts out quickly making it really easy to ride or ski. For many, this will be the first time skiing actual powder. Be warned, it’s addicting!
While it’s a bit different than the groomed slopes of the ski fields, it’s easy to pick up and super fun once you get the hang of it, and Southern Lakes will give you tips in advance if you need to hire powder skis or a longer board.
If you’ve ever wondered what flying feels like, you’ll get pretty close while heli skiing.
5. It’s not safe
Southern Lakes has been around since 1985 and only employs super qualified guides and pilots. I mean, just having Lydia sets the bar pretty freaking high – she guides on Everest!
Obviously there are risks in the backcountry, I mean, hello, we can’t control the landscape. But with so many years of experience they stay on top of all the risks and factors to make sure you have the safest and most fun experience possible.
It was a totally new environment for me, but the guides and team made me feel completely safe which went along way for me to properly enjoy the day.
Southern lakes have a snow safety expert and manage the risk behind the scenes by knowing the weather for each particular mountain range. Odds are you won’t even know exactly where you’re going until the day of your heli ski.
The morning of, the guides and experts look at which mountains have the best snow and will be the safest terrain to ride in. All of the terrain they use is low avalanche risk so you can worry less about the mountain and focus instead on having the best day ever.
It really gives you confidence knowing your in safe, capable and experienced hands to charge and go for it.
6. TRUTH: It’ll be the best day of your life
As hard as I try, I could never truly convey with words or photos how life-changing heli skiing is. And everyone who has been says the same thing.
There’s something so freeing about flying down the mountain with powder flying in the air with each turn, making your own first tracks on iconic mountain slopes. The confidence that comes after tackling your first few runs makes you feel invincible and on top of this world, and it surely is the best way to experience winter in New Zealand.
Having this once in a lifetime experience is definitely worth the money. It’s not just about skiing. The whole experience is a full day guided adventure and is often the pinnacle of a skier or boarder career. And have I mentioned you get to FLY to your destination over and over and over again!
Still have questions? Check out Southern Lakes Heliski’s FAQ section!
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